Dr. Carolyn Slupsky, an assistant professor in the Food Sciences and Technology Department and a member of several programs of the Foods for Health Institute, became involved with metabolomics ten years ago. A research colleague of hers was investigating a relatively new treatment procedure for Type I diabetes. The procedure involved transplantation of pancreatic islet cells from a donor into the liver of the diabetic patient. Ten years ago, Dr. Slupsky was asked to determine whether metabolomic analysis of a small biopsy of the donor pancreas could establish how well islet cells could be extracted. As it turns out, metabolomics is effective at determining whether pancreatic islet cells can be effectively extracted from a donor pancreas.
Recent research undertaken by Dr. Slupsky indicates that metabolites vary strongly with disease, and can be used as precise biomarkers for illnesses where diagnostics may be rare, such as for certain cancers. Her current work primarily focuses on how metabolites reflect cell interactions with the various commensal bacteria inhabiting the gastrointestinal tract. Gut epithelial cell interactions with surrounding bacteria, primarily commensals which live symbiotically with humans, affect metabolite levels and health status. “We want to relate chemical… [metabolites] to gut microbes – which microbe does what,” explains Dr. Slupsky.
Metabolomics is a powerful tool, capable of providing specific health information as well as establishing an individual health trend and profile for people evaluated longitudinally. However, its implications are greater than a novelty of modern medicine. Metabolomics can link measured metabolites to health problems and to differences in microbiota populations from individual to individual, providing important information on how microbiota influence the health of their host.
“Ultimately, we are trying to have a way to quickly figure out microbiota composition, and how can we change it to make you more healthy,” says Dr. Slupsky. Metabolomics can provide greater insight into the tangible effects of varied microbiota populations, as well as a tool to assess and improve individual health.